By Dibussi Tande
The Liengu cult is primarily as a medicinal rite that leads to the induction of the patient into the powerful mermaid cult. According to Edwin Ardener in “Belief and the Problem of Women”, the Liengu beliefs and rites actually consist of:
…various different combinations producing a patchwork of several women’s rites all of which are linked by the name LIENGU... they are all enacted, however, as a response to a fit or seizure that comes mainly upon adolescent girls but also upon older women.
Edwin Ardener (like Carl Bender, 50 years before him) distinguishes three types of Liengu rites:
1) LIENGU LA NDIVA (ndiva: ‘deep water’). It is the rite that retains the closest connection with water spirits. In this case:
“the sickness attacks the girl or woman, characteristically causing her to fall over the fireplace, so that she knocks out one of the three stones that are used to support cooking pots. A woman versed in this form of Liengu then comes and addresses her in a secret liengu language. If she shows any sign of comprehension, a liengu Doctor (male or female) is called...”
after performing certain traditional rites the girl is then kept in seclusion. During this period a woman sponsor teaches her the liengu language and gives her a liengu name. She is subject to a number of taboos. After several months the doctor returns. She is picked up and carried in turn one by one by men chosen for their strength, until they reach the deep part of the stream where the doctor pushes her in. Women who accompany them sing liengu songs, and the company tries to catch a crab, representing the water spirit. After this rite, the girl is regarded as being a familiar of water spirits and one of the liengu women. After another period of seclusion, the woman comes out to a feast, and she is finally regarded by men as finally immune from any attack by the water spirits.
2) LIENGU LA MONGBANGO. It differs from ndiva in many respects. For example, the symptom is sometimes said to be the girl disappearing into the bush as if attracted by spirits. She is then sought by a group of female relatives singing to her in liengu language, and when she is found, is taken to the seclusion room. Unlike the NDIVA case, she is not secluded for the entire period of the rite. After a few months, a feast is made which is traditionally all eaten on the ground, after which the girl is allowed to go out, although still subject to taboos. After a further period of nine months, a sheep is killed and a similar feast made, the girl and her liengu woman sponsor being secluded in an enclosure in the bush. She is now dressed in fern-fronds (“senge” or “njombi”) rubbed with camwood, and led through the village tied to the middle of a long rope held by her companions in front and behind. Outside her house, both sets of people pull the rope, as in a tug of war, until the rope comes apart, when the girl falls down, as if dead. She is revived by being called nine times in the liengu language, after which she gets up, and is dressed in new clothing. After a few weeks, she is washed in a stream by the doctor to show that she is free from taboos she observed during the rites. Both with ndiva and mongbango the rites extend for about a year.
3) LIENGU LA VEFEA. It reduces the procedure to essentially to the killing of a goat and a young cock, and the drinking of the vomiting medicine followed by food taboos. The medicine is the same in all rites. Among the upper Bakweri who live furthest from the sea, an even more generalized liengu rite seems to have existed in which a simple “rite de passage” aspect is very noticeable. It is said that every daughter was put through liengu at about 8 to 10 years of age so that she be fertile. She would wear fern-fronds and be secluded for a period, apparently shorter than the above examples.
A more colorful but equally accurate description of the liengu rite is found in Carl Bender’s 1925 publication, Religious and ethical beliefs of African Negroes: Duala and Wakweliland.
For example, Bender reveals that during the seclusion period of the liengu la Ndiva, the patient sees spirits from time to time, and at the sight of these, she cries; iso, iso! (We, we). On hearing this, the spirits disappear. Also, upon stepping out of the stream at the end of her seclusion, she cries: Ena Linua o! (Abbreviation of two favorite female names Enanga and Limunge) to which the crowd join in chorus; “Amba Ena Linua” (Truly Enanga Limunge)
With regards to the Liengu la Monbwango, Bender reveals that when the missing girl is being sought after, members of the search party carry in their hands the insignia of the liengu, the NJOLA (made of wicker-work) and shout out in liengu dialect; “Mandone so njo mbembi njilo e?” (Who is it that hides in the bush?’)
Bender sheds more light on the Liengu la Vefea (which he spells ‘wevea’) by revealing that it shields its devotees against diseases of the head, the lungs, and other internal organs. If a woman or girl is afflicted and there is little or no hope for recovery, her relatives set her apart for liengu la vefea. The rites begin with the victim holding a low stool and lifting it high above her head, at the same time crying in the dialect of the liengu la vefea: (Iso nge, bane fe na nja e?” (We are it, who are the others?”)
According to Bender;
“The maengu are held in high esteem among the Wakweli and are credited with superhuman powers. When the witch doctor and his means fail, the Liengu is called. She appears by night and imitates the call of the liengu near the hut where her services are required. In every such instance the patient is claimed by the Liengu.”
Ardener, Edwin. “Belief and the Problem of Women” in Ardener, Shirley (ed). Perceiving Women. London: Malaby Press, 1975.
Bender, Carl Jacob. Religious and ethical beliefs of African Negroes. Little blue book; no. 798. Girard Kansas, Haldeman Julius Co. 1924.